I've always liked the Cowboy Junkies, and The Trinity Sessions is one of my favorite albums, I also adore their follow-up albums - Caution Horses, Black-Eyed Man, Pale Sun Crescent Moon with its cover of a Dinosaur Jr song - and I sing their songs in my guitar set. They somehow, inexplicably, fell off my radar a few years ago. I have no idea why - they never became a "has been band", they always made good music, but they escaped my notice. Now, I find that they produced four CDs in 18 months under a "Nomad" series, and have now released it as a set for $20, along with a fifth CD of odds and ends, and how can I resist? It's so wonderful, after 20 years, to have the Cowboy Junkies adding gravitational stress to my CD rack. It's a better world we live in now.
The songs on the Nomad Series are supposed to be built around a concept, but I don't know what unifies them, because each CD is very much its own recording. And, like all good Cowboy Junkies songs, they fall into just a handful of categories: the wistful, mournful slow strummer, the (relatively) upbeat "rocker" (the Cowboy Junkies can only "rock" so hard, but they all make use of artistic distortion), the wan pop song, the freaky experimental number, and the distinct, characteristic cover song.
The first of the five CDs, "Renmin Park", starts off with some found sounds, Chinese martial music that sounds like Oktoberfest tunes, then some Chinese traditional singing, plucking, park sounds, people hanging out. The first full song, the title track, is a beautiful, wan, wistful mourner that is just Margo's voice and Michael's spare guitar, with later some Chinese fiddle thrown in. Gorgeous. "Sir Fancis Bacon At The Net" is freaky and weird, starting with a very percussive Chinese voice looped, with Margo providing her normal beautiful voice paired with her own ghostly distorted voice. The song is hauntingly freaky, with funky drums and a sliiiiiiding bass dirging things along. "Stranger Here" is a relatively dull song in the poppish vein, nothing special. "A Few Bags Of Grain" moves along nicely with brush drums, a bass line, and a crisp, sweet piano evoking that spooky drunk late night mysticism of weird lights and silence. "I Cannot Sit Sadly By Your Side" is even stiller and more Cowboy Junkies-like. It also rises up on its hind legs and growls later on with massive waves of feedback-drenched guitar. "(You've Got to Get) A Good Heart" gives great drum madness with swift bass lines, Margo Timmins' voice nearly everywhere. Nice. After a while, though, we get some sort of weird Chinese child counting to eight (yi, er, san, si, wu, liu, qi, ba), but somehow off-beat to the song. Both are nice, but combined they are... curious... "Cicadas" has more Renmin Park people voice, the sounds of cicadas, and then a nice song about them, a croaking groan from Timmins, echoes with other strange sounds - a spooky, spooky tune. "My Fall" is a beautiful pop song the likes of which you've never heard before... or have heard a million times before. It combines weird Chinese orchestras and modern electronic noise rollings. Heavenly. "Little Dark Heart" is like the type of Cowboy Junkies song we would have heard on albums all these years - the scratchy guitar, the slow beat of the drums, the wail of the fiddle, a bit of burbling organ. Nice. "A Walk In The Park" is a nice song, although it's tough to take as well - it is an absolutely crushingly, stunningly beautiful song, The Cowboy Junkies playing while a Chinese singer makes his song, plays fiddle, and adds sound effects - absolutely, atrociously a piece of art... in the park! Wow!! I mean... sure. Why not? Right? The final song is "Renmin Park (Revisited)", a punning title for a song that re-creates the opening song, albeit with a male singer (I can't figure out who this is, it's not mentioned in the liner notes - I wonder if it's Michael Timmins.
The second album in the collection, Demons, is a collection of covers, all from the doomed Vic Chesnutt (years previous they had sought to nestle under the shaky Townes Van Zandt in his twilight years). The band puts 11 of the covers on this album, while six more went into to the Extras CD ("Old Hotel", "Marathon", "Sad Peter Pan, "Guilty By Association", "Forthright" and "Stay Inside". I've put the Vic Chesnutt originals at the end of this entry.
The Cowboy Junkies tend to amp up the music on their versions, adding in rolling organ, or dripping feedback. The first song, "Wrong Piano," is a very simple guitar song in the Vic Chesnutt version, but the Cowboy Junkies play it with full-on Neil Young "Cowgirl In The Sand"-ish guitar and Band-ish organ, with plenty of instrumental flourishes. In "Flirted With You All My Life", which starts of just as mellow as the original, Margo Timmins doesn't feel the need to change the lyrics "I am a man..." But the song picks up quickly and becomes way blustery, cool acid guitar and burbling guitar rising and ebbing throughout the song. Great! "See You Round", the original Vic Chesnutt version, is all babbling, scratchy vocals and layers of guitar, while the Cowboy Junkies' version sounds like a real band effort, Margo Timmins' expressive and throaty roar lighting up the night, while Chesnutt's hardly lights up a corner of the basement (but hey - it's a voice with tons of character!). The Cowboy Junkies' version is also heavily organ-fuelled. Probably the song with the greatest difference between original and cover is "Betty Lonely", which Chesnutt beats out of a guitar, evenly, with a pack of backup singers (he's learned a thing or two from Leonard Cohen albums) that is also slightly Beatles-esque of the"While My Guitar Gently Weeps" or "Across the Universe" spooky era, while the Cowboy Junkies begin with a blast of organ that takes them deep into Angelo Badalamenti territory. So both are going where they haven't gone before - great! Vic's "Square Room" starts with a near-whisper, you can really only hear his voice, then a wee wee bit of guitar. His voice no longer sounds jarring, but very nice indeed. Feedback rears its head from time to time, just the right touch. The Cowboy Junkies version starts off like something from the Trinity Sessions, that voice and that acoustic guitar. Wow. Each sy lab ble is strong ly pro nounc ed. "Just a titled alcoholic/waxing bucolic", the words, float over the room, overstated, not like Chesnutt's understated and swallowed. Both songs are nearly equally melancholic. "Ladle" is a bit of electric folk from Vic Chesnutt, great kronky guitar, a bit grungy even nearly (in the vocals, not just the guitar). The Cowboy Junkies version is just as spooky and haunting, with great singing by Margo and some nice backup from a male voice. Vic Chesnutt's "Supernatural" is full of Spanish-sounding guitar, bruising brushes and wiry vocals, the Cowboy Junkies' version is a very faithful adaption with Spanish guitar, and some spooky noises. "West Of Rome" is mainly voice and piano on the original version, when the Cowboy Junkies do it they keep it also very minimal, adding some percussion also. "Strange Language" is a groovy REM-sounding album, the Junkies also cover it pretty faithfully. "We Hovered With Short Wings" is real Angelo Badalametti territory, with a really strange spooky midnight mood of brushes on drums, stand-up bass, and bizarre night noises, Chesnutt's voice nearly inaudible as it comes in, warming up after a few bars. Vic Chesnutt sings it a bit higher than Margo Timmins does, the Cowboy Junkies bringing in instruments not heard in the original, but subtle, always subtle. "When The Bottom Fell Out" is a bit different - the Vic Chesnutt song is just his voice and guitar, the Cowboy Junkies' version starts with a snatch of dialogue from Chesnutt, eventually getting into a full-band The Band-like dirge with full organ and horn section, fleshing the song out quite fully indeed.
The third album, Sing In My Meadows, is an experimental one, the band performing what the call "acid-blues," which has them channeling "Miles at the Isle of Wight deep in his Bitches Brew phase; Captain Beefheart and his Mirror Man psychoses; The Birthday Party live at the Electric Ballroom circa 1981 (Margo, Al and I were in that audience); Neil and Crazy Horse in the back room at SIR... overdriven and thick with electricity." I don't know if they necessarily pull it off; but still, this is probably my favorite of the bunch, because you can really get lost in these songs, with their weird, chunky guitar and zombie beats. The first song, "Continental Drift" opens with pounding drum pattern, it is very heavy, there's hard guitar, a squawking saxophone keeping things Morphine-y, mysterious. The first half of the song is instrumental, then there's singing and surreal lyrics and a freaky, pounding beat. I don't know what continental drift is supposed to be. "It's Heavy Down Here" is a wondrously murky song that fades in, slinks in, totally weirded out, freaky, styley, doom-y even. One minute of fuzz, four minutes of Margo Timmins moaning, with a male voice in the background. Wow. "3rd Crusade" is a bit faster, funkier, there's some sort of keyboard progression, and restrained vocals. "I've been told that you've been bold", swells and ebbs, and a discernible chorus. Nice. "Late Night Radio" is like a pretty regular Cowboy Junkies song, and may have even appeared on the Trinity Sessions in a much slowed-down version. Or maybe there's something of an early REM song about it. Unfortunately, the hypnotic chorus repeats just a few times too often, wearing out its welcome, but the zooming glooming of the guitar, which hovers like some evil firefly, invokes and captures. "Sing In My Meadows" is a fun, sweeping song that seems not just a little bit horny. Launching as it does with wild drums and great guitar wailing, "Hunted" is a wild, insane, frantic song that the band had initially recorded on their Pale Sun Crescent Moon, except that here they really kick out the jams and get outright noisy (and sound way more mature/way less funky than they did in 1993). "A Bride's Price" is a lovely piece of bass and guitar and drum rambling, with Margo's voice twisted and distorted all over the place. The closing song "I Move On" - also the longest track on the disk at just over six minutes - comes off like the bastard brother of the Velvet Underground's "Sister Ray", in all of its maddened rolling organ-infused chaos, nearly two minutes into the song the lyrics kick up, distorted and foaming at the mouth. Amazing songs, all the more astounding is the thought that they were recorded over only four days.
"The Wilderness", the fourth and final recording in the original series, . The first song "Unanswered Letter (For JB)" is a groovy electric clicker that shaves along zippily, amplifies in parts with subtle, squealing electronics. The song chugs along excellently and in high spirits. "Idle Tales" has some sort of burning piano riff at the beginning that sounds like it's had a bit of the Sigur Ros treatment before the song gets chilly and mellow - acoustic guitar, Margo's sensuous voice, and the occasional power chord, a bit of this and that coming in slowly. A stunningly beautiful number anyone would fall deeply in love with. It is a song of great restraint and endless experimentation - touching and well-balanced (not sure they needed the slight background choir that comes in momentarily at the end, though). "We Are The Selfish One" is mainly voice and acoustic guitar, with a few other flourishes. It's nice, but a bit dull. "Angels In The Wilderness" is duller yet, but it's nice enough; has the stripes of an earnest radio song, perhaps, I dunno. "Damaged From The Start" is similarly nice, simple and dull. "Fairytale" is a pretty tale that seems like it has something to say, with that chopping mandolin that recalls Cowboy Junkies albums past. "Staring Man" has a bit of fiddle in it, giving it the aura of the first real country-ish song of the album. "The Confession of Georgie E" is a beautiful slow song (they seem to all be beautiful slow songs), and "I Let Him In" is absolutely, screamingly dull! "Fart, I Hate The Cold" has the most life of any song on the album, with its big fat chords, its boppy lead guitar, its dramatic vocalizing - it swings and sways and is absolutely, painstakingly, Canadian-ish-ed-ly true!
The extras are good! "My Boy Burns" is spooky as hell, and rises and ebbs the way a good Cowboy Junkies song should. "The Girl Behind The Man Behind The Gun" is an even better song, moody, with moments of thickly distorted guitar spooking things up, and Margo alternating talk-singing with pure wailing. The song speeds up, slows down, goes acoustic, each element of the best Cowboy Junkies songs is present in this song. "Punching Holes Through" is sweet and mysterious with lone high notes, a great beat, sweet sweet beauty like nothing from the past. Achingly great song. You hear this song once and you know it's been close to your soul many times before. Deserves to be immortalized on the soundtrack of a really great movie. "Demons" is a sweet, jumpy number, sung by a male voice, quite a bit different than any of the songs that preceded it. It is also the last Cowboy Junkies song on the collection.
But with only four of the ten songs on the last disc by the Cowboy Junkies and six by Vic Chesnutt, this dis really does also belong to the late singer-songwriter. "Old Hotel" by Vic Chesnutt is simple voice and guitar, the Cowboy Junkies perform it with the full band, but with Margo Timmins' voice sounding like it's been recorded at a distance. After some time big fat distorted guitar comes floating in, momentarily. Great beats, great song. "Marathon" is an awesome-wicked Vic Chesnutt song, sung with voice and guitar and a wee bit of background ambient noise, full on emotion and sensitivity. The Cowboy Junkies' version makes the song sound even sadder, if that's even possible. "Sad Peter Pan" is a nice mellow Vic Chesnutt song, the Cowboy Junkies version is acoustic guitar and voice and clarinet, a beautiful interpretation. The book is pierced by weird sound effects that chop through everything. Lovely. "Guilty By Association" is one of Chesnutt's better-known song, not sure why it's not on the main album, "Demons", this version of Chesnutt's vocal-guitar-strings number is stunning, with its gloomy note-by-note thrummings, accompanied by spooky background ambient noise (soundscapes?), and the now-formulaic Neil Young guitar sound (how did they recreate that?). "Forthright", a beautiful acoustic guitar-voice-brushed drum song that already sounds like a Cowboy Junkies number is played by the Cowboy Junkies with a bit of brioche - that ambient sound, the beautiful bungee bass with the immaculate drum sound, and that haunting Margo Timmins voice, splashes of this guitar sound and that drifting in from time to time - really perfect production by the Meisters. Both versions are very long and lovely. "Stay Inside" is the last song on the series of discs; the Vic Chesnutt version has plenty of backing vocals, some of them by great doo-wop bands, glooming on and on over this chorus-like, affirming tune.
It's just amazing to listen to both versions - the original next to the tribute/cover. What a musical education... I'd never listened to Chesnutt before.